Huffpost Politics

Wisconsin Democrats Could Stay Away For Weeks In Fight Over Unions

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Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Manis) | AP

MADISON, Wis. — Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing the state government in a standoff with majority Republicans over union rights for public employees.

The dramatic flight from the state stalled a proposal that seeks to ease Wisconsin's budget woes by cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of many government workers. Democrats who stayed in Madison scored their own victory, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn until at least Tuesday without taking a vote.

(Scroll down for the latest updates from Wisconsin)The party's two-front battle against the legislation is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall's GOP wave, and it's taken hold even as the anti-union agenda pushed by new GOP Gov. Scott Walker spreads to other states.

But the dramatic strategy that has clogged the Capitol with thousands of protesters clashes with one essential truth: Republicans told everyone months ago that unions would be one of their targets, and the GOP now has more than enough votes to pass its plans once the Legislature can convene.

"This is not a win," said Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the budget committee that has already endorsed the plan, of the adjournment. "This is just a reality we're living with. ... The bill's still moving forward."

The 14 Senate Democrats left the state Thursday, delaying action in that chamber on the sweeping bill. Among them was Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who said Friday the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would prefer to end the stalemate sooner.

"That really, truly is up to the governor," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at a downtown Chicago hotel. "It's his responsibility to bring the state together. The state is not unified. It is totally torn part."

Meanwhile, the protests at the state Capitol entered a fourth day and continued to grow – to an estimated 40,000 people, the largest crowd yet. Many schools were closed again after teachers called in sick, including the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.

The protests are so large that Capitol workers cannot safely move through the halls, with GOP Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald calling the situation "a powder keg."

The throngs of protesters – including teachers, prison guards and many students – have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. But tensions were expected to rise Saturday, when conservative tea party groups planned their own rallies.

"You can't ignore this sustained and inspirational outpouring of people who are demanding changes," said Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca, who called the Assembly's decision to adjourn for the holiday weekend a huge victory that will increase pressure on Republicans to change course.

But neither Walker or the Republicans who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November appear ready to make any concessions. Walker called on Senate Democrats to "come home" and rebuffed a request to sit down with them to seek a compromise.

The leader of the state's largest public employee said workers were prepared to discuss financial concessions but not to give up bargaining rights. Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said protests would continue until Walker agrees to negotiate.

Republicans aborted an attempt late Friday afternoon to hold a final vote on the bill without Democrats, who had been in a closed caucus meeting. Democrats sprinted into the chamber yelling to stop the vote, and the GOP leadership retreated.

Protester Carrie Dainty said the delay made her hopeful. "They'll be back on Tuesday, and we'll be here until Tuesday," she said.

It's not clear when the Senate Democrats will join them. Erpenbach said the decision to flee happened on the spur of the moment as Democrats gathered Thursday morning near the Capitol for a regular strategy meeting.

An hour later, he threw a toothbrush, razor and some clothes into a duffel bag and a backpack and jumped into a car, heading for a prearranged meeting at a hotel in Rockford, Ill., just south of the Wisconsin border.

The lawmakers were concerned that police could have detained them, even though the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits the arrest of state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason.

From Rockford, the legislators headed in different directions, most of them traveling to the Chicago area or to other parts of northern Illinois, Erpenbach said. Since leaving Wisconsin, he said he had not spoken to any of his Republican counterparts.

The Wisconsin walkout is similar to a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats were outnumbered by Republicans in a battle over congressional redistricting. The group got on a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border.

Former Texas state Rep. Jim Dunnam said the group had an "end game" – they had to stay away for one week to kill the bill by running it up against a legislative deadline. But they also knew their efforts were only temporary because Republican Gov. Rick Perry would call them into special session all summer until a bill passed, which he did.

"It was the toughest thing I've ever done politically," said Texas state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. "It was not something we wanted to do. It was the last thing we could do to protect minority voting rights."

In a sign that the commotion might be causing other problems for the governor, Walker pushed back the release of his two-year budget plan by one week, to March 1.

The governor insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers – including higher health insurance and pension contributions – are necessary to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.

Eliminating their collective bargaining rights, except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index, is necessary in order to give the state and local governments and schools flexibility to deal with upcoming cuts in state aid, Walker said.

Those arguments don't wash with Democrats who say the fight is really about political power and quashing the unions, whose members are longtime supporters of Democrats.

Erpenbach (URP'-ehn-bahk) accused Walker of trying to rush the legislation, which was publicly unveiled only a week ago.

"I'm not calling him a dictator. But this is dictatorial almost," Erpenbach said. "I don't think I've ever seen such a draconian piece of legislation come down from any governor, Democrat or Republican."

Republicans had warned since last year's campaign that they would seek major concessions from unions. But for lawmakers in the minority, "The only other option we had to slow things down was to leave," Erpenbach said.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane called the walkout in Madison the boldest action Democrats have taken since midterm elections swept Republican to power in statehouses across the country.

Walker "has been so strident that the way he's engaged ... has effectively given the Democrats the high ground in terms of how they're responding," Lehane said.

"What Wisconsin is going through isn't all that different from other states," he added. "But the way it's being handled is."


Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Dinesh Ramde and Jason Smathers in Madison; Michael Tarm in Chicago; Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.

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The Atlantic reports that at one town hall meeting in Wisconsin, one GOP state senator faced "loud opposition" to a proposed compromise.

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From AP:

About 50 pro-union protesters peacefully left the state Capitol late Thursday after a judge ruled they could no longer spend the night to show their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers.

The judge also ruled the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building.

Full story here.

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AP reports that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state employees Friday if his union bill doesn't pass by then:

Walker also said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is negotiating with Democrats who stymied passage of the bill by leaving the state for changes to the proposal that would get them to return. Walker said he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.

"I can't take any of that off the table," he said.

More here.

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Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Democratic State Senators in Wisconsin have been threatened with contempt by Republicans, if they don't return by 4 p.m. today:

Republicans in the state Senate ordered Democrats on Thursday to return to the chamber by 4 p.m. or be found in contempt of the Senate - a move that means Democrats could be taken into custody.

"We simply cannot have democracy be held hostage because the minority wants to prove a point," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau).

Full story here. Take a look at the resolution below.


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HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal writes:

A new survey released this morning by the Pew Research Center is the first to provide a clear before-and-after snapshot of national attitudes toward labor unions in the wake of the ongoing protests and budget conflict in Wisconsin:

The public’s overall views of labor unions have changed little through the lengthy stalemate between Wisconsin’s governor and the state’s public employee unions over collective bargaining rights. About half (47%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions compared with 39% who have an unfavorable opinion. In early February, 45% expressed a favorable opinion of unions and 41% said they had an unfavorable view. However, liberal Democrats and people in union households are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of labor unions than they were just weeks ago.

See the Pew Research report for their complete analysis and full results by party, ideology and union membership subgroups. The Pew Center had also conducted an in-depth survey on unions in early February, just before Walker released the budget bill that sparked the protests.

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Amanda Terkel:

On Wednesday afternoon, former congressman Dave Obey -- who served from 1969 until retiring this year -- was barred from entering the Wisconsin statehouse.

“I’ve been coming to this building since 1958 and I’ve never been denied access,” Obey stated. Although he did not tell security officials who he was -- because he believed everyone should have access, regardless of title -- others did inform them.

Yesterday, a judge issued an injunction ordering the Capitol building " members of the public during business hours and at times when governmental matters, such as hearings, listening sessions and court arguments are being conducted."


Several Democratic members of the Assembly set up desks outside to meet with their constituents, arguing that people could not get to their offices.

“Governor Walker’s lockdown of the Capitol during normal business hours betrays Wisconsin’s longstanding dedication to open government and is an insult to the people of Wisconsin," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D) in a statement. "I call on Governor Walker to let the people back into the People’s House immediately.”

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The City of Madison has filed a police report charging a 23-year-old man for "disorderly conduct" after he unplugged extension cords from a Fox News vehicle. Read the full report here.

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Adding another state into the debate on public workers, West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch reports:

West Virginia's public employees would reap pay raises averaging 2 percent this year, with a second year of increases promised to teachers and school workers, under a proposal advanced Wednesday to the state Senate by the House.

But the 78-22 vote reflected GOP-led concerns that increasing state spending threatens a stable budgetary picture that has so far allowed West Virginia to avoid deficits and the painful choices they can force. Foes also contrasted the pay hikes with the state's continuing unemployment woes.

Full story here.

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More details have surfaced on Ohio's controversial SB 5, which just passed the state senate.

WSJ reports:

Senate Bill 5 would prohibit public-employee unions representing teachers, librarians, toll collectors and others from bargaining over health benefits, pensions and working conditions. Under the bill, unions could still negotiate wages, but striking would be prohibited for all public workers, taking away a major bargaining chip. Workers could face a fine of up to ,000, or 30 days in jail, if they go on strike.

A Twitter campaign, #standupOH, has already mounted. As user @escapetochengdu tweeted, "The bill that just passed Ohio Senate allows the government to jail striking librarians for 30 days. Despicable."

Read the whole Wall Street Journal story here.

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The bill put forth by an Ohio panel earlier today has passed the state senate, TPM reports:

The Ohio State Senate just passed the controversial SB 5, aimed a limiting unionized state employees' ability to collectively bargain or go on strike.

In an indication of how divisive the legislation is in the Buckeye State, the final vote in the Senate was 17-16.

Gov. John Kasich (R) has endorsed the measure and is expected to sign it when it reaches his desk.

Full story here.

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A tourism campaign leveraging the Wisconsin senators who fled to Rockford, Illinois has gone viral. The push, "Hide Away In Rockford," hawks "collectively bargained" rates to some of the town's best tourist attractions.

“Unlike Wisconsin’s state senators, this video isn’t low key; it’s been a real runaway hit," said Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) President/CEO John Groh of the campaign's success.

Watch the promotional video here.

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HuffPost's resident pollster Mark Blumenthal reports:

WASHINGTON -- A automated telephone poll conducted this week in Wisconsin by the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely confirms other recent polls showing public support for collective bargaining rights for unions and, by a narrow margin, more opposition than support for the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker (R). Some caution is in order, however, about several vote preference questions included in the same survey.

Despite the ongoing coverage and national interest in the controversy, all of the opinion surveys taken within Wisconsin so far have had sponsors with partisan ties, and each has taken a different approach to the questions asked. Where their questions have been similar, however, we can begin to compare the results.

Read more here.

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HuffPost's Amanda Terkel and Sam Stein report:

WASHINGTON -- Wisconsin's Republican state senators are attempting to commandeer the staffs of the 14 Democrats who have been camped out in nearby Illinois for nearly two weeks, the latest effort to convince their colleagues to return and move forward on Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget repair bill.

A resolution proposed on Wednesday would allow Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) to "assign supervision over any employee appointed by a Senator who is absent without leave for 2 or more session days." The absent senator would retain control of the office's data, however, presumably meaning that Republican senators would not be allowed to access the Democrats' electronic or paper files.

The measure is almost certain to pass, as the state Committee on Senate Organization, which has jurisdiction over such measures, is composedd of three Republicans and two Democrats. Fitzgerald's office could not be reached for comment.

Read the rest here.

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HuffPost's Sam Stein reports:

WASHINGTON -- The Wisconsin Democratic Party has launched a fundraising campaign to recall state Senate Republicans who have supported the budget bill by Gov. Scott Walker (R) that would strip collective bargaining rights from the state's public employee unions.

Read the whole story, and see the email they sent out, here.

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Reuters reports that a panel of state senators in Ohio has voted to strip unions of some collective bargaining rights as well as the right to strike:

The Senate Labor Committee vote was 7-5, with one Republican and four Democrats voting against. The measure now moves to the Republican-controlled state Senate, which could approve it as early as Wednesday.

If endorsed by the state legislature and signed by Republican Governor John Kasich, Ohio would become the biggest state so far to enact sweeping restrictions on public sector unions.

Full story here.

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Wisconsin state GOP senators voted to fine their absent colleagues 0 per day they stay away, the Wisconsin State Journal reports:

Senate Republicans stepped up their efforts Wednesday to compel the 14 Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin two weeks ago to come home.

The Senate voted to impose a 0 per day fee for any senator who is absent without leave for two or more session days. Republicans remaining in the Senate approved the daily fine resolution with none of the Democrats present.

Full story here.

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Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald spoke with CNN's Eliot Spitzer, during which Spitzer asked him if it was fair to cut both education funding and taxes for the wealthy.


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HuffPost's Sam Stein reports that ,000 was raised online in first two hours for new PCCC/DFA ad hitting Scott Walker and Republicans in Wisconsin. By the three-hour mark, the amount had risen to ,000.

See ad and fundraising here.

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HuffPost's Nick Wing looks at the myriad advertisements that have emerged on Wisconsin airwaves since the protests began:

Tensions between Wisconsin public employees and Republican Gov. Scott Walker have led to the beginning of an advertising war marked by a volley of commercials coming from a variety of sources.

The first salvo was launched last week by a third-party group, the Koch-backed conservative organization Americans for Prosperity. Entitled "Stand with Scott Walker," the commercial commends the governor for purportedly taking the necessary steps to address the state's budget shortfalls, actions that would force public employees to pay a larger share of their pensions and health care benefits, as well as limit collective bargaining rights of the state's unions. It also directs blame at President Obama for supposedly helping to organize the massive protests, which the ad argues don't represent the will of Wisconsin voters.

Read more and watch the commercials here.

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The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is out with a new ad in Wisconsin that features protesters in Madison describing how Gov. Scott Walker's budget will affect them. Scroll down for video, via Greg Sargent.

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More details on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's press conference today, AP reports:

After focusing for weeks on his proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday presented his full budget – a plan that cuts .5 billion in aid to public schools and local government but avoids any tax or fee increases, furloughs or widespread layoffs.

Walker said the cuts could be paid for in large part by forcing government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits. And the governor whose cost-cutting ideas have stirred a national debate over public-sector unions gave no indication he would soften his demand to reduce their power at the negotiating table.

Full story here.

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HuffPost blogger Tom Hayes examines the situation in Wisconsin in the context of social networking:

If anyone in the world should be paying close attention to the grassroots political unrest in the Middle East, it is Big Business and Big Labor in America. The rise of self-organized groups of people toppling once-entrenched regimes is a harbinger of things to come here in the U.S. too.

For now, traditional battle lines are more immediate. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker's attempt to break the public employee union there is being characterized by some as a last gasp test for Labor. It is not. The fate of big unions has already been cast. Like record stores and time-bound television, the labor union as an organizing device has outlived its usefulness: people simply don't need intermediaries to organize them into groups anymore.

Read the whole post here.

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Wisconsin state representative Michelle Litjens (R), who was allegedly told she was "f---ing dead" by fellow representative Gordon Hintz for voting in favor of the budget bill, discussed the scuffle with Laura Ingraham on her radio show. (Hintz has since apologized for his "outburst," and Litjens says she accepts the apology.)

LISTEN (via Mediaite):

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Governor Walker just asserted his budget repair bill will save the state .5 billion. He says if the senate Democrats come home, local governments will gain 0 million in additional revenues.

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Governor Walker is calling for Wisconsinites to come together to "make tough decisions," asking for a commitment to the "future" so "our children don't face even more dire consequences." He asserts that his budget bill will make Wisconsin work for the people again.

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Scott Walker has just said the "people of Wisconsin" are his most important priority, to applause. He asks his constituents to be "mindful of differences" in opinion, and applauds the state assembly for "not losing sight" of their goals and passing the budget bill.

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Governor Scott Walker is currently holding a press conference to discuss his proposed cuts to the state budget. Updates to come. Watch live video here.

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Wisconsin TV producer Jen Ayers just tweeted:

Snipers on the roof of buildings near the capitol... wowsers.

More to come...

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Democrats have raised the possibility of pushing a recall campaign against Republican state senators in Wisconsin who vote to strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees. On the other side, Republicans have talked about recalling some of the Democratic senators who left the state.

Now on the liberal blog DailyKos, Chris Bowers writes that Democrats who strike a compromise to take away collective bargaining rights should also expect to face progressive heat:

If this bill passes with the provisions stripping collective bargaining rights, then anyone who votes for it should expect to face a broadly based recall effort that we will support here at Daily Kos. Further, the Democratic senators who break first and let collective bargaining rights be stripped by returning to the state should not necessarily consider themselves exempt from such a campaign. This is an existential fight for workers' rights, and as such it must be fought with every legal means available.

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Brewers infielder Craig Counsell supports the efforts of Wisconsin's union workers.

He said in a statement:

“As a Major League baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who works in Wisconsin under a union contract and whose right to bargain collectively is guaranteed under federal law, I support the thousands of public sector employees who are threatened with the loss of that right under recently-proposed state legislation. These employees are real people with real families whose livelihoods, careers and futures are being jeopardized. I urge the government of Wisconsin not to take away this most basic of union and human rights.”

More here.

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